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So Long, Skid Row
Colby Katz

So Long, Skid Row

The dozen shoes that protrude from beneath Clarence Kelley's bed are neatly lined up, like cars at a dealership. First there are the patent-leather ones that cover his ankles, then the gray, plastic loafers with chrome buckles, then the aging blue sneakers with yellow stripes, and so on. Across the room, on a simple wooden nightstand, rest his Bible, some papers, a box of instant stuffing, a collection of pens lying parallel to one another, a package of crackers, and a can of coffee creamer. "I try to keep it neat," Kelley says with pride, kicking some lint off the raggedy rug he sweeps daily.

There's still a month before Kelley will be turned out of the Philips Boarding House, this flophouse he shares with 21 other men. He doesn't have much to say about where he'll go except, "You know, I don't know at this juncture, at this period of time." He takes a Cowboys brand cigarette and puts it between his lips, then behind his right ear. His thoughts wander. "I like to cook, you know... spaghetti, soups, meats. I like mac and cheese."

Out in the hallway, walking toward the shared bathroom, Kelley whispers so his neighbors won't hear. "Shh," he warns. His cloudy blue eyes -- honest ones that show his slowness -- open wide with fear. "They're bad people. The way they affiliate with me is not nicely."

Lighted only by the orange glow of exit signs, the hallway opens onto a weed-filled courtyard and then onto Rosemary Avenue, a boulevard of contrasts. There's a convenience store specializing in 40-ounce beers and side streets that lead to the Hill, a neighborhood of historic homes split into cheap apartments and men who whisper to themselves. The Philips, at 117 Rosemary, is the area's gloomiest spot. The four buildings have been so thoroughly eaten by termites that they've begun to bow and sink, and peeling white paint reveals charcoal-colored boards rotten with age.

This shadowy stretch of Rosemary Avenue connects two of the most successful urban-renewal projects in Florida. A half-block to the north along a $3.5 million brick streetscape, Clematis Street boasts tony restaurants and martini bars. Two blocks to the south is West Palm's $550 million-and-growing defibrillator, CityPlace, where, between shops and restaurants that sport tile murals, fountains stream water 50 feet into the air in sync with classical music. Shoppers, shuttled on wood-trimmed, trolley-style buses between CityPlace and Clematis, are treated to a full view of the flophouse.

So it's not surprising that an out-of-town entrepreneur saw a fortune in the Philips. The newcomer, Miami architect and developer Willy Bermello, bought the place for a song in April. In a little more than a year, Bermello expects to complete a high-rise condominium building at 117 Rosemary that many people in Palm Beach County believe will help clean up one of the last remnants of West Palm's worst slums.

Kelley won't be living in the $160,000-and-up condos that will replace his apartment. Nor will the 21 men who paid $66 to $100 a week to live at the Philips before it closed July 15. In June, Bermello had sent out typed notices giving them about a month to clear out.

Calling these men victims of urban renewal would be too easy. Most are drug addicts or alcoholics with filthy mouths. Many are drifters who spend their days thinking of little more than their next beer. Some, though, are just guys at the lowest point in their lives, who scrape together money for rent each week. The last days of the cockroach-infested hole where they lived tell a story of simple people pushed out by gentrification. Kelley doesn't know that word, but he knows rich people are moving in.

You couldn't ask for a better spot to look up young women's skirts. In front of the flophouse on a busy Friday, the open-air trolleys pass by every few minutes, usually with some scantily clad babe on board who forgot to cross her legs. The Philips's longest-running tenant, Craig Lamprecht, a small man with a loud voice and a sailor-like red beard, takes in the view from a plastic lawn chair on the sloping front porch. The guy next to him, his gray beard stained tobacco-brown from years of smoking cigarettes down to the filter, says he rents a room down the hall from Kelley. He adds that he wants to keep his name out of the conversation; then he spots a good one. "Oh, man, would ya' look at that!"

Lamprecht has his eye on something better. "Who's that in the car across the street?" he asks, pointing his Bud Ice to a Mustang convertible.

"That's a big black hooker," the other guy says.

"I don't want no hooker," responds Lamprecht, who's lived in the dilapidated building for seven years. He takes a swig that makes a puckering sound. "Take you out somewhere and knock you over the head."

"Paying for it is the only way you'll get it," his companion says. "You've got a better shot of seeing God."

The two men taunt each other until Tom Gibson walks up. Tall and lanky with a baseball cap pulled down to his eyes, Gibson is returning from his job as a fry cook at a Clematis Street restaurant. He takes a seat on the porch that connects to his room through a door with broken windowpanes. It's the only room with a kitchen, so the guys store beers in his fridge. But mainly, Gibson serves as the butt of their jokes.

"Hey, man," Gibson says. He's already had a few beers after work. "Where are the eyeglasses go?" It doesn't make sense, like a lot of the stuff Gibson says when he has had a few too many.

"What the hell is he talking about?" the man with the stained beard asks.

"He's as dumb as a rock," Lamprecht says, loud enough so Gibson can hear. A car drives by playing the same radio station that is blasting from a stereo in Lamprecht's window. For a minute, BTO's "Taking Care of Business" plays in unison from both the street and the window.

Lamprecht tries to play the tough guy. He does a good job until he comes clean about the bowl of cat food outside his door. He acknowledges feeding the neighborhood cats, including a three-legged one he calls Stumpy. He admits he's taking Stumpy with him when he leaves.

The men have three weeks until they'll have to leave the flophouse, but none of them speaks of the deadline. Mostly, they're intensely private and won't describe their plans, even to these men with whom they share a bathroom. In truth, few of them know where they're going. But they know they have three weeks -- three paychecks -- left.

Some of them will have to cut back partying to save money for apartment deposits, which they didn't have to pay at the flophouse. Lamprecht and the bearded guy describe themselves as construction workers. Others take jobs in construction or landscaping, or even in the sugar-cane or vegetable fields, for a day's pay.

The flophouse also attracts such guys as the waiter who lives upstairs and wouldn't give his name for fear of being associated with the place. Laid off from his construction job in Cleveland three months ago, he rode a bus 23 hours to Florida with $350 in his pocket. He hangs out with the others in the afternoon, drinking beer on the front porch with a golf shirt tucked neatly into khaki shorts -- looking like the cleanest thing in the place.

Most of the boarders could have afforded something better if they hadn't spent so much money on crack or pot or booze or some other assorted vice. Most of them can't drive, either because they don't have cars or because, like Gibson, they've lost their licenses after repeated DUI arrests. Here in downtown, construction sites or restaurants are always within walking distance if they need a job. They can keep themselves out of trouble by sauntering to the bars on Clematis or in CityPlace. Or they can just drink on the front steps.

Shedding his flophouse image as a drunk, Gibson is dependable and responsible at his restaurant job, often arriving early to scrub down the grill or clean out the grime-caked exhaust fan above the fryer. He cooks fish and chips for businessmen on lunch break at least five days a week. The chef and owner talk about him as if he's a wayward son. And the waiters show him respect as he dishes out plates of fried food.

He works partially to pay the bills but mainly for the partying money. Although he says he could sober up and save some cash for a deposit on a real apartment, he's not ready for that. He has been drinking since the guys on his high school lacrosse team in Pennsylvania showed him how. It pisses him off that he's being evicted from the boarding house where he has spent six years. "I drink, you know, but it doesn't mean you have to treat me like an animal."

As she opens the door to her apartment on the west side of town, Jean Philips flashes a smile as bright as the white walls, white carpet, and white tile around her. At 82 years old, she moves slowly past furniture built by her father, Gustav "Fadie" Philips, who put his surname on the boarding house.

Dressed in a teal workout suit that looks recently pressed, Philips struggles to remember the boarding house's early days. She was five years old when her family moved to West Palm Beach and her dad saved up enough money working as a carpenter to buy the place. He installed its first indoor bathroom and tended a rose garden out back. He built pine dressers and nightstands that are now warped and banged up with wear. Then he hung a sign, which is still out front, simply advertising "ROOMS." In the years that followed, he added two buildings to the property and eventually bought a fourth structure, a small house, next door.

Philips and her husband, Dick, took over the place when her parents retired back in the '60s. They raised five kids there, and when the apartments filled up, her son would sleep on the couch so she could rent out his room in the main house. Downtown was the center of things in those days, but in 1967, the Palm Beach Mall opened and eventually sucked the life from the city's center. Shops closed, and anyone with money fled to the suburbs. As the neighborhood crumbled and the renters became tougher and less respectable, Philips held to rules that forbade the men from partying or bringing women into the building. Violators came home and found their rooms padlocked.

Until the exodus to suburbia began, downtown West Palm always had a racial divide: Blacks lived north of Clematis in the numbered streets and whites resided to the south. But things changed as downtown declined. Black people moved into the neighborhood around the flophouse, and white folks who had moved to the 'burbs let low-income renters wreck their old houses, Philips claims. "All the way through, my place stayed white," she maintains proudly.

Dick died two years ago, and Jean Philips, then a petite 80-year-old with wispy gray hair, feared that one of her tenants would knock her over the head and steal her money. After all, she dealt only in cash. She told her kids about her fears, and they persuaded her to move to the modest apartment on Village Boulevard five miles from the flophouse. Until she left downtown, Philips supplied the men with fresh sheets every week, partly as a way to see what was going on inside.

After she moved out, though, Philips lost control. It wasn't her home anymore. She hired Sun Mortgage Group, a West Palm Beach property management company. But the managers, who refused to comment for this story, failed to keep out drug dealers. The "whites only" policy fell by the wayside, with rooms being rented to Kelley and other black men.

One of the most notorious tenants was a guy named Shane who lived in an apartment upstairs and allegedly set up a system to sell crack that became well known in the neighborhood. According to police reports and city documents, it went like this: Addicts would walk through a side door that's supposed to remain locked, go to his room upstairs, and give him a $20 bill. Then he would send them outside, where a vial with two crack rocks would drop from the window. In February 2001, police sent informants into the Philips to buy crack from Shane. But his window-drop system prevented authorities from nailing him with distribution. Frustrated narcotics officers, with help from the city's SWAT team, raided the flophouse at 10:45 p.m. February 17 but found only empty baggies and vials.

As a last resort, the cops forwarded a report on their failed bust to the city's Nuisance Abatement Board, which has the power to board up crack houses. Philips appeared before the board a month later to promise she would clean up the place. She evicted Shane and agreed to do criminal-background checks on new tenants. There hasn't been a drug bust since. "The men who stayed there were usually working men," Philips recalls of her seven decades in the flophouse. "They were mainly good men."

Jon Siekierk has good intentions. It's too bad he's usually drunk. Or stoned. Or drunk and stoned. Siekierk uses the title "night watchman" around the flophouse, but you just as easily could call him the resident ball buster. He receives free rent in exchange for keeping an eye on the residents and lives in the sweetest of the Philips pads: Jean Philips's old home. The place is a two-story, cracker-style building with Dade County pine floors and built-in bookshelves. Siekierk lives mainly on the first floor; his clothes are piled on furniture in the dining room. He spends much of his time drinking cans of Natural Light on a plaid couch in front of the TV. Every room appears to be dusted with a light snow; it's actually plaster sprinkled from the degenerating building.

"It's not a bad place," Siekierk says, picking up a piece of pizza from a coffee table strewn with cigarette ashes during a rainy afternoon in June. "The only thing is that you can't run too much stuff at once. The electric lines will short-circuit and cause a fire." He nods his head toward a socket, where unsheathed copper wires lead to the light switch.

Siekierk has an interesting background he loves to talk about. "Work? Me? On my résumé, it states that for ten years, I've got restaurant experience. I've been a chef, and I've been a toolmaker. I raised timber wolves. I've done everything." Hoping to make some money from his crumbling apartment, he ripped down the crown molding and door frames a few months ago. Many of the frames, though, were worthless because they had been nearly devoured by termites.

Showing off the place on a tour, Siekierk bounds through the courtyard, into the main building, and down the back hallway. The place smells locker-room musty and sort of woodsy. In apartment 8, across from Kelley, Siekierk exhibits a chest-high pile of boxes, clothes, televisions, and mattresses -- the stuff he has confiscated from apartments after tenants didn't pay their rent. He says he'll return it if the tenants ever return with the money. But some of the junk, he admits, has been in there for months. And he uses no labels to describe what belongs to which delinquent tenant.

Up on the second floor, Siekierk jiggles a padlock on a room in the back. The tenant, Teddy, isn't there, and Siekierk's probably better off for it. Teddy, who wouldn't give his last name when he later spoke to New Times, is a big guy who wears mascara and speaks while standing in other people's personal space. In the dimly lighted hallway, he can look downright scary. "I had to go lock this last week after he didn't pay his rent," Siekierk says. "He paid me yesterday, so now he's back."

It isn't Teddy that Siekierk worries about, though. Crackheads who live in the building, he says, attack when he padlocks their rooms. "Crack's a real bad problem here," Siekierk says over his shoulder while walking down the staircase. "You got to keep looking out for people who are doing it."

Siekierk's boss, Art Fish, shows up a few days later. Fish is the manager and seems to relish the ball-busting even more than Siekierk. Fish padlocks doors if the men are late by minutes on their weekly rent. He constantly berates them for minor infractions such as having visitors. Unrelentingly strict about the rules even though only three days are left until the July 15 closing date, Fish kicks Tom Gibson out of the flophouse for having a New Times reporter in his room. Gibson violated the rule forbidding visitors by allowing the reporter in, Fish explains. "This is my place, and I'll do what I want with it," he tells a cop after calling 911 when he finds the reporter and a photographer sitting on the front porch.

Fish doesn't live at the flophouse; he spends most of his days walking the property in dirty, short-sleeve dress shirts and cargo shorts splotched with paint. He won't say how old he is, although he's probably in his 60s. His spiky crew cut is reminiscent of J. Jonah Jameson, the crotchety Daily Bugle editor from Spider-Man. Fish wears thick, brown-tinted glasses that seem to cover half his face.

The building has been without power for two days when Fish decides to make his third try at a damaged circuit breaker. He's constantly pushing the plastic frames up the ridge of his nose as he tries to remove a fuse with pliers. Asked about the flophouse he's maintained for two years, he says: "There's termites, cockroaches, and scumbags. What more do you want to know?"

Without a doubt, Siekierk and Fish are an odd pair to represent the new owner. But Willy Bermello, who couldn't be reached for this article, has probably never heard of Jon Siekierk or Art Fish. Someone in his firm, no one there seems to be sure who, agreed to keep them on after Bermello bought the Philips in May for $869,400. Anyway, the place's current $91,000 in gross annual income is inconsequential to his plans.

Bermello and others at his company, BAP Clematis LLC, expect to tear down the place this month to make way for an eight-story, 262-condo building ringed at the bottom with 15,000 square feet of retail space. The one-bedroom units will start at $160,000, and the two-bedrooms will go for up to $230,000. To understand the magnitude of the change, consider this: The $45 million Bermello's company will spend on the project would pay the rent for all 22 residents of the Philips for 491 years.

Before he set his sights on West Palm Beach, Bermello already had an impressive list of accomplishments. He opened the trendy Amalfi Restaurant in Coral Gables, dined with the king of Spain last year, headed the Miami-Dade political powerhouse Latin Builders Association, received $1 million to design a terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that will never be built, and held frequent fundraisers for Republican big shots.

The residents of the Philips complain that Bermello didn't offer them money to relocate. Two years ago, the owners of another Clematis-area flophouse gave residents a few hundred dollars to help them find a new place before turning the property into a restaurant. But Bermello isn't obligated to give the tenants anything, city planner Joe Minicozzi points out. "Are the people living there being abused by people who develop real estate? Definitely," Minicozzi says, answering his own question. "Is the housing that's coming in better? Well, it's more."

The condos that will replace the flophouse will actually be cheaper than many built in downtown recently. For instance, most one-bedroom apartments in CityPlace cost $1400 a month, and the City Plaza penthouse units sold out at $1.5 million when they went on sale in January. Henry Pino, one of two Bermello partners in the Philips project, says: "Claims that we're building this for the wealthy, I just don't see it. The people who will be buying our condos will be in the 30- to 40- (thousand)-a-year range. I see that as a working-class project."

Kelley leans back on his neatly made bed and smiles wide enough to send wrinkles across his cheeks and around his eyes. A gentle breeze flows through the open window next to him, which looks out onto a weed-filled parking lot and then Clematis Street. He talks of his other life as a porter. He says he makes $355 a day. He has three kids in college. Their mother, Maxine, comes by almost every day to check on him and sits with him on his single bed. "She's real kind and nice and generous," he says.

Do all those things exist? Well, a hint arrives when Kelley, who says he is in his 40s, talks about all the places he's visited: "I've been everywhere in the world on the Greyhound bus and the Delta airplanes. What's my favorite place? Oh, man, it's the Grand Canyons desert."

Kelley tells his story in short sentences with one thought each. They are often hard to decipher. He ended up in the Philips as did a great many of the men who have lived there: There was no plan or destiny, only the simple fact that he couldn't find anything as cheap nearby. It's four blocks from the flophouse to the office building where Kelley says he spends a few days a week moving shipments off trucks into warehouses and storerooms.

"I'm a p-porter, a p-p-porter," he says, stammering as he often does when talking about himself. "Not a hotel p-porter, no, but I receive, and am responsible for, the receiving of goods and services." He looks embarrassed when he has a problem speaking and rocks a little on his small bed. He says a government agency -- he can't remember the name -- has offered to help him find an apartment. He has an appointment next week, though he can't remember the day.

He won't move back in with his parents, who he says now live in town. He has lived with them before, as recently as a couple of years ago, but he won't even entertain the idea. "They're bad people, man. You don't know what they do to me." He says that his parents are into some kind of voodoo and that they have burned him with candles. He points to white scars on his milk chocolate-colored skin as evidence of their work. "I never used them spirits in my life," he says, losing that signature smile. "Not one time."

Kelley clips the filter off his cigarette with his thumb and index finger, snapping it into a box he's using as a trash can, carefully making sure the bits of tobacco don't land on the floor. He stares out the window above his bed for a minute and appears to drift off into the world of the $355-a-day job, the generous Maxine, and the Grand Canyons desert.

"Don't come in here! The dogs'll get you," West Palm Mayor Joel Daves shouts from his front porch. "Wait for me outside." A couple of minutes later, he passes through his wooden gate, next to the sign that reads "Bad Dog Will Bite," and strolls down Evernia Street toward the Philips.

Daves became a neighbor of the flophouse 25 years ago when he bought three wood-frame homes at the corner of Rosemary Avenue and Evernia. He joined two of the pink structures and restored the third as a cottage. He didn't move there to help clean up the slum, he says. He bought them because they were cheap. He was going through a divorce at the time, and he moved into the neighborhood as most white folks were leaving.

Daves recalls a crack dealer who set up shop outside his gate in the early 1980s. He walked out of his house every night for months and yelled at the guy, telling him that he'd regret it if he didn't find another corner. Finally, Daves claims he persuaded the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to bust the guy. "In retrospect, it wasn't smart," he says while turning onto Rosemary, just a block from the flophouse. "I'm lucky I didn't get myself killed."

Outside the flophouse, the pole-thin mayor, who is wearing chinos and a light-blue dress shirt, sits on a concrete piling and describes seeing Dick Philips working in his garden. The flophouse buildings are old, he says, but lack any significant historical value. There's no record of their being owned by someone famous, home to a city leader, or the site of a memorable event. Besides, the condos that will replace them, he says, will help bring in better neighbors.

As the mayor dryly explains city incentives for development, Siekierk barrels down the steps of his apartment chasing Teddy, the mascara-wearing guy from upstairs whose belly and big frame make him appear double Siekierk's size and stature. They stop 20 paces from Daves.

"I want my fucking money," Siekierk yells.

"You'll get your fucking money when you get out of my face," Teddy says, drawing out the f and s sounds. He turns around and almost pokes his finger into Siekierk's eye, nearly jabbing him with it as he talks. "Now get the fuck off me."

"I'll get out of your fucking face when you give me my money," Siekierk responds.

The mayor, apparently accustomed to calamity in his neighborhood, continues with his monologue as if there isn't a fight brewing nearby: "And we'll see new development as long as we can encourage business growth...."

With a slow sweep of his arm, Siekierk whaps Teddy's hand from his face. Teddy responds by pushing Siekierk in the chest and nearly knocking him to the sidewalk.

The mayor: "The city can only do so much to encourage businesses...."

Siekierk recovers and musters a weak punch toward Teddy's ear. The bigger man deflects it, then bitch-slaps Siekierk across the head, this time knocking him to the bricks.

"That's it," Siekierk screams, trying to right himself. "You're fucking out of here!"

The last bit takes place just a few feet from the mayor. He finally takes notice. "Why don't we walk back to my house? There's always been a few weird people around here."

A day before the deadline to move out, Kelley unloads his shoes, his clothes, a can of cranberry sauce, and a case of Cowboys cigarettes in his new place in a much tougher neighborhood in Pleasant City. Kelley will pay $300 a week for the number 3 room of the Hilter Apartments.

He'll have a more difficult time keeping the place up to his cleanliness standards. The former tenants of the two-story, Mediterranean-style building left dirt ground into the walls, floors, and cabinets. The front door says it all: There's a hole the size of a gun barrel in the center that's used as a makeshift peephole. Black stains from years of palm prints are smeared across it. He's optimistic, though. "It's real nice; yeah, I don't mind it much."

Kelley says he'll walk to work through Pleasant City, among the dirty men who wander from block to block. He'll wear his regular wardrobe, which includes pink jeans, a bright-red baseball cap, and faded T-shirts.

Outside the Hilter, which is on 15th Street, at least a half-dozen men wander the neighborhood. One guy sits cross-legged in a shopping cart; another rocks back and forth in fetal position on a crumbling concrete wall; another stumbles along blindly with his pants down.

Move the building, which has an arched entranceway leading to a roughed-up pine staircase, to Kelley's old neighborhood near CityPlace and it would likely soon be converted into luxury apartments. In Pleasant City, that seems unlikely. The Hilter has a metal grate over the window in the coin laundry downstairs, and the rank smell of old urine fills the foyer. Sixteen blocks separate the Hilter and the Philips, two buildings that share a bleak past but divergent futures.

By the deadline at noon July 15, all the men of the Philips had been successfully relocated, and the neighborhood had moved one step closer to gentrification. Fish made what was likely his last trip to the place that day, locked the doors, disconnected the power, and drove off in his white Econoline van. There was no one for him to yell at.

No one ended up homeless, as many in the building had feared, but few found rooms downtown.

Gibson rented a place around the corner at the Hotel Evernia for $175 a week. He'll have to party less and keep quiet when he comes in late at night.

The waiter from Cleveland who lived upstairs found an apartment in a largely Hispanic neighborhood about five miles south. He can take the bus to his job at a Clematis Street restaurant until he saves up for a car.

Lamprecht, the construction worker, rented a duplex, although he won't say where. He likes his privacy. He loaded up old wooden nightstands and boxes of clothes into a friend's old Ford Bronco, not forgetting to take Stumpy. Before leaving, he unceremoniously removed the faded American flag in the front window of his apartment, letting unfiltered sunlight into the place for the first time in years.

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